Monthly Archives: June 2011

Myths and Fables Retold

Myth as such is absent in the history of Western children’s literature. Unlike literature, myth is based on the belief of the myth bearers; when this belief disappears, the myth ceases to be a myth. Since children’s literature emerges long after Western civilization had lost its traditional mythical belief, this stage is not represented in children’s fiction.

- Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

THIS IS THE STAR BY JOYCE DUNBAR

This is a Bible story, so might instead be reclassified as a religious story. Anyway, it is the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, told in a poem to the rhythm and structure of ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.’ If that sounds unlikely, it begins:

This is the star in the sky.

These are the shepherds watching by night

That saw the star in the sky.

etc. etc.

This structure is quite popular and is often used in children’s books e.g. The Beanbag That Mum Made (published 1985, written by a year one class and Andrea Butler).

THE GREAT BIG ENORMOUS TURNIP BY ALEXEI TOLSTOY

An old man planted a turnip but it grows so large he can’t pull it out of the ground. He summons a variety of people/creatures to help him pull, and finally it’s the mouse’s effort which brings it up.

I’m pretty sure this is based on one of Aesop’s fables but I can’t think exactly which one. Anyway, the idea is embedded in the idiomatic English phrase, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and others like it.

My version was published by Piccolo in 1968. The artwork by Helen Oxenbury is a wonderful snapshot of trends of that time, and would be a good reference if you were hoping to create a retro feel in your own artwork.

THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS BY CLAIRE HUCHET BISHOP

If you were looking to illustrate a classic tale you might go to China for inspiration, as these guys have done. There are many folk tales in Asia which haven’t yet achieved wide exposure in the West.

The Five Chinese Brothers story

THE FROG WHO WOULDN’T LAUGH BY CECILIA EGAN

Pan Macmillan Australia have put out a whole series of Aboriginal myths, retold and illustrated. This is one. It’s about a giant frog who swallowed the world. It reminds me of the Maori myths and legends I grew up with in New Zealand, in which Maui ‘fished up’ the country out of the sea. It’s impossible to depict such a thing in a children’s book. Likewise, the enormous frog in this book just doesn’t feel big enough. Part of me thinks the traditional myths (creation and suchlike) should be left alone as oral tales, because the imagination deals with scale far better than any 2D image in a book.

ALL AFLOAT ON NOAH’S BOAT BY TONY MILTON

I’ve always thought that being trapped on an ark with a whole heap of smelly animals would’ve been no fun at all, and perhaps the author of this book did too, because after a while the animals start to get on each other’s nerves, reminiscent of a long car trip with small children. In the end the animals learn to amuse themselves and each other by putting on a show. The illustrations, by Guy Parker-Rees, are done with a very attractive palette, making use of vibrant purples for shadows. This lends a distinctive look to the artwork.

THE COCKY WHO CRIED DINGO BY YVONNE MORRISON

In this retelling of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the cockatoo ends up getting his sulphur crest snipped short by a dingo. I was wondering how the story would end, since in real life a cockatoo would be unlikely to come off so lightly if confronted by a hungry dingo.

(Such is the deception of picture books featuring Australian wildlife.)

Hurry Up And Slow Down by Layn Marlow

This is an original story making use of well-known characters from one of Aesop’s most famous fables. The fable teaches that slow and steady wins the race, whereas this story has a slightly different message: Some people do things quickly, others do things slowly, and we must be patient with one another. In this respect it teaches children to respect individuality.

THE TICKETY TALE TALLER BY MAUREEN HASELHURST

This story isn’t actually a myth or a fable, but is instead written in the style of one. We learn where books came from. They were invented as a way of spreading stories to a large number of children at once, by a fairy who used to fly around the village telling stories to individuals. The fairy ends up going around gifting books to children.

In this respect, we end up with a story about the magical power of literature – a fairly common theme. (Books which say books are good. Preaching to the choir, I’d say.)

The illustrations are wonderfully colourful, with interesting perspectives down into a mythological town.

THE FIRST STORY EVER TOLD BY ERIK JENDRESEN

Vilcabamba is not a city. It is not a place that you can walk to. It is the place that we find when we close our eyes and see the light of creation and hear the first story every told. It is where you are now.

In isolation, this picture book feels a little more New Age than I prefer, but in conjunction with a bit of non-fiction reading about the Incas and Vilcabamba, this story may well spring to life.

NEVER CRY WOOF! BY JANE WATTENBERG

This is a retelling of an Aesop’s Fable: The boy who cried wolf. Except in this story it’s dogs themselves who are up against the wolf. They have been recruited through an agency to protect sheep, bringing this story firmly into the present.

The illustrations in this book remind me of a kitsch calendar my mother-in-law brought back from a cruise around Australia – each month featured an oversaturated photo of some sort of landscape, with a kangaroo thrown in somewhere: kangaroos surfing, kangaroos sunbathing on the beach, that sort of thing. No attempt at all had been made to fit the kangaroos into the landscape and that was the entire point. Anyone with Photoshop Elements and a free afternoon could have knocked one up.

The illustrations in this book were a bit like that: deliberately collaged and bright and wacky. This might be a book for dog lovers. I felt the story thread was compromised in some parts by the need to insert (terrible!) puns, ha ha, and make the most of some funny pictures of dogs of the sort you see on LOL Kitteh websites (or the dog equivalent, I should say!) I would say this book would appeal to dog loving children.

One idea I did like was a page full of dogs’ faces. In the story these dogs had all applied for the job of ferocious keeper of sheep, and the young reader is asked to pick the best dog for the job. This encourages the child to look very carefully at the page and to engage with it actively.

THE BEAR WITH THE SWORD BY DAVIDE CALI

From what I can work out this is an original story which reads like an old fable, although for all I know, it could be the retelling of a story from a different culture.

This book is unusual in that the font is in sans serif font, when most are in a serif font. I’ve heard serif fonts are easier to read on paper and that sans serif fonts are easier to read on screen. I have no idea if this is really the case.

The illustrations make nice use of white space, and are a mixture of coloured pictures and line drawings.

I wasn’t particularly engaged by this story and I couldn’t get the three year old to listen to it, but the publisher has seen that it has educational value, and has uploaded some teacher resources online.

THE BOAT BY HELEN WARD

This story is similar to the biblical Noah’s Ark tale, though no mention is made of biblical times. You know the story… It rains a lot, and an eccentric hermit of a man builds a huge boat to put all his animals on. In this story a boy helps out (presumably because this is a tale meant to appeal to children, and is therefore more effective with a child character).

When the man cries and the rainbow comes out at the end, I don’t feel the slightest bit like crying with him. (I’ve always had a bit of trouble with the Noah’s Ark mythology, and maybe that’s why.)

The illustrations are done in sketchy pencil style, with various items rendered in coloured pencil throughout to make them stand out. This is quite effective. Though I remember as a child being far more drawn to brightly coloured pictures, this style suits the voice of the story, which is sombre and designed to carry weight.

IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN BY MAURICE SENDAK

In this classic picture book from 1970, a little boy (perhaps two years old) wakes up from a dream to find himself in an imaginary, surrealist kitchen peopled by fat male chefs who all look exactly the same, and who bake him into a pie. This scene reminds me of Shakespeare’s ‘double double toil and trouble’ witches scene, with the chefs standing around a bubbling cauldron.

But the boy sits up in the pie and tells them that he’s not pie ingredients; his name is Mickey. He moulds the pie dough into a plane and flies away. He ends up in a huge bottle of milk at some stage, then slides down into a bath, gets himself all clean and finally we see him sleeping in his bed. As you can see, this story is as wacky and imaginative as a dream, and may well have been inspired by one.

The story ends with ‘And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning’ (do we?), which turns it into a sort of modern fable, or ‘explanation for the existence of cake’.

There are some parts which have dated a little. The page in which naked Mickey (wearing nothing but a pot on his head) flaps his wings like a chicken and cries ‘Cock a doodle doo!’ I can’t think of any modern picture books in which we see a depiction of a young boy’s penis, and indeed I wonder if it would be edited out. The picture and words combined are a little unfortunate to the modern adult reader at least, now that ‘cock’ has entered mainstream lingo from porn culture. There’s something regrettably kinky about that particular sequence, but of course I’m reading this book through a modern, adult lens. Young children would not see any such thing.

I particularly like the colour scheme in the artwork, reminiscent of old posters, in a style even older than 1970 I think. (Vaudeville inspired?)

This story is one to read again later, to remind myself that when it comes to plots in children’s books, there really are no rules regarding ridiculousness.

For more recommended trade books similar to these see the Legends, Tales and Myths Matrix, a downloadable Word document.

See also: more on myths, Greek mythology and related books from this post at Teach With Picture Books.

Genes mix across borders more easily than folktales from New Scientist

What is a spider’s life worth?

In this short video, Richard Dawkins talks* about the ways in which science can inform morality. He uses abortion as an example, and asks whether cows should not be afforded the same rights as an embryo, since adult cows have a much bigger nervous system than a human foetus.

This reminds me of a moral discussion I’ve had – several times – with two friends, married to each other. One partner is big on animal rights and refuses to harm a spider. Instead, she’ll somehow get it transported outside. She refuses to harm any sort of spider, including small black house spiders and daddy long legs. (I should remind you at this point that we all live in Australia where, as far as I’m concerned, some urban dwelling species are always better off dead.)

Her husband, in contrast, is a farmboy by background, and has modified his views towards all creatures great and small. He is now charged with the task of removing the spiders, and his wife even purchased a thingamebob which is sort of like a net with a long handle, especially designed for shifting spiders that you don’t really want to touch.

Huntsman spiders spring to mind. These are pretty much harmless to humans, but they’re so big and so hairy it’s hard to believe they’re not mammals. This makes them very hard to squash. It’s like murdering a mouse – you feel a visceral pang of remorse, and I for one can’t do it.

Yet it’s difficult to get them outside, because they’re in the habit of jumping onto you. At least, I imagine that’s what they’re in the habit of doing, because they are called huntsmen for a reason. But I’ve never even tried to catch one. I just can’t stand the sight of them.

Can’t stand them, don’t want to kill them. It’s a dilemma, especially when you can’t use your own toilet because it’s being ‘guarded’ by a big hairy spider.

At times I’ve inveigled my husband into repatriation of huntsman spiders, and he’s managed to trap them all right, but they always lose a limb under the rim of an ice cream container or suchlike. A spider who has lost one or more of its legs is unlikely to lead a full and rewarding second life, even once transported to its natural environment. You might as well kill it with a rolled up copy of The Canberra Times.

So the moral dilemma is this: What’s the cut-off size, spider-wise? My friend refuses to make use of flyspray, even. Those two live in the city and can afford such luxuries. We live in a rural area, and without cockroach baits, flytraps, mothballs and regular bombs let off in the sheds, we get a pantry infested with moths, silverfish through the books, something-of-indeterminate-species chewing holes all through the woollen garments, red back infestations in the garage, white tails hiding among towels in the bathroom and cockroaches waving at you from plug holes.

I’m not prepared to live like that. My rule is this: if it’s in the house, it’s dead meat.

I admit this, sometimes, and I’m compelled to ask my wildlife loving friend: What’s the smallest creature you’d be prepared to harm? Because if you make use of soap, you’re killing millions of live entities on your skin each time you shower. And if you make use of cleaning products in the kitchen (and I hope you do), you’re killing perfectly healthy crops of bacteria and viruses every time you pull out the baking soda and vinegar spray gun.

Is the life of a bacterium worth less than the life of a human? As Stephen Hawking said, intelligence is over-rated. Bacteria have done perfectly well without brain cells for eons.

I thought that was quite lovely, and am going to make much use of it, in all manner of conversations.

*Richard Dawkins is one of the few speakers I know of who makes no use of fillers (such as ‘um’ and ‘ah’) whatsoever. Once I noticed this about him I became fascinated by it, and now I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for him to one day, just one day, say ‘um’. (In the above clip he does indeed cough and suppress a burp. But that’s as close as I’m ever going to get.)

Related:

Spiders Actually Look Bigger To Arachnophobes, from The Body Odd

A Potted History Of Earth

I bet you have memorised all manner of facts and figures. You know about Joan of Arc, Abel Tasman, Christopher Colombus, Adolf Hitler.

These are details, folks; fiddly little details, which pale into insignificance when compared to the history of our universe. Perhaps this is just my own experience, but my high school education did not lead us to the big picture — instead, we must study astronomy, archaeology or  geology at tertiary level to get that.

So my knowledge of macro-history is limited. But this stuff is important if we are to have any hope in understanding the basics of climate change, for starters.

There are always books to fill gaps in our own education. (No point blaming the educational system – I have little time for literate adults who complain they weren’t taught certain important things in school.)

You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.

- THEODORE GEISEL, “DR. SEUSS”

I’ve been hearing a lot about climate change but I don’t understand the science. With that in mind, I’ve been reading Tim Flannery’s ‘Here On Earth‘, an excellent easily-digestible book, if you’d like to read more.

I didn’t know all this stuff, for instance. It’s fascinating. If you’re interested in the answers, highlight the white text.

  1. How old is earth? 4.65 billion years, give or take.
  2. The elements that form us – like carbon, phosphorus, calcium and iron – were created in the hearts of stars. (As Carl Sagan said, we are all made of star stuff.) But it didn’t take just one generation of stars. How many generations of stars did it take to form some of the heavier elements – such as carbon – which is required for life here on earth? 3
  3. What percentage of the human body is made up of carbon (by dry weight)? 18%
  4. And what percentage of human body weight is made up of ‘fellow travellers’ (eg gut bacteria)? 10%
  5. Earth’s continental crust is much thicker than its oceanic crust. Continental crust is made of silica-rich rock. What is the oceanic crust made of? Basalt. Some scientists think that life originated in this oceanic basalt crust.
  6. For the first half billion years of earth’s existence, there is no evidence of any life.
  7. Because of greenhouse gases, the average temperature of earth is 15 degrees celcius. Without those gases, the average temperature would be minus 18 degrees celcius.
  8. Why is it that no one can find rocks from the very beginning of earth’s existence? Our planet constantly renews itself. All of earth’s original crust has been ground to dust, melted and formed anew. Although earth is 4.65 billion years old, the oldest rocks are only between 3.3 and 3.8 billion years old. 
  9. Where can the very oldest of earth’s rocks be found? Greenland
  10. According to the theory of continental drift, every three hundred million years or so, the continents coalesce, creating a single large continent.
  11. Every hundred thousand years for the past million years, earth has experienced a cycle of gradual freezing, followed by abrupt thawing. Average temperature goes from 5 degrees celsius to between 9 and 14 degrees celcius. This huge increase occurs within a relatively short time period of 5000 years. These are known as the Milankovitch cycles.
  12. Many scientists think that this natural (non anthropogenic) freezing and thawing is caused by at least three different things: [1] small changes in earth’s orbit, [2] its tilt on its axis and [3] its ‘wobble’ on its axis. Their impact on the amount of energy earth receives from the sun is small – just 0.1 percent – but where sunlight falls it varies more. For example, the Arctic receives more summer sunlight during that part of the cycle where earth’s tilt is greatest and the Arctic is nearest the sun.
  13. In the 19th century, it was thought that the sea was growing saltier and saltier. This is because the waters of the ocean are recycled, by evaporation and precipitation, and hence through earth’s rivers, every 30 to 40 thousand years. With each recycling, rivers leach salt from the continental rocks and carry it into the sea. Yet the sea does not get any saltier. Scientists now think they understand why not. What is their explanation? Mid-ocean ridges form where two continents are moving apart, stretching the oceanic crust between them. They resemble a double-crested mountain range, and between the crests, in a sort of rift valley, molten rock from deep in the earth’s crust comes to the surface. Hydrothermal vents – deep, fluid-filled cracks in the oceanic crust – form, and all of the ocean water in the world eventually circulates through these. It takes between 10 million and 100 million years for all the water to be recycled through the hydrothermal vents, but as it circulates the chemical structure of the sea water is altered by the extreme heat, and the salt is removed. This recycling of the oceans through evaporation, rainfall and rivers every 30-40 thousand years, and through the crust at the mid-ocean ridges every 10 million years or so, keeps the saltiness of the sea constant. (And none of it would be possible without continental drift.)
  14. James Lovelock has a different explanation for why the earth goes through these heating and cooling cycles. What is it? Life on land prefers an average temperature of around 23 degrees celcius. But life in the oceans prefer 10 degrees celcius or less. At such temperatures the ocean’s surface and bottom waters can mix through convection, bringing nutrients to the surface. This would mean earth has a two-state thermostat, which results from a constant tug of war between life on land and life in the sea, each pulling Earth’s temperature towards its preferred state. The balance of power is altered by tiny variations.
  15. The last survivors of many evolutionary lineages are giants e.g. the horses, rhinoceros and apes (including ourselves). But in the past, these lineages consisted of both large and small species. So why are they now limited to just a few giants? Small organisms reproduce more rapidly than large ones. This means that all else being equal, smaller organisms evolve faster than large ones. Where ecological niches of smaller and larger organisms overlap, this advantage allows the smaller organisms to displace their larger competitors, which results in the larger competitors becoming extinct ‘from the bottom up’. In the case of the horses and rhinos it was the cud-chewing grazers such as cattle and sheep that displaced their smaller relatives, while for the apes it was the Old World Monkeys.
  16. Bipedal apes — us — have upset the natural balance of the earth. How long ago was it that we first start to wreak havoc? 50 thousand years ago, give or take. This was the moment we left our ancestral African homeland.
  17. Scientists have worked out that all people alive today came from a single African male. What did they study that allowed them to garner that information? The Y-chromosome, which is passed down solely through fathers. This makes it an ideal guide to the travel of our male ancestors. It evolves quickly, so around 40% of its mutations have begun to exhibit regional variation (formerly known as ‘race’).
  18. What did this ‘Adam’ look like? He was very likely dark skinned, tall, slender and possessed epicanthi, which are the fancy words for folds over the corner of the eyes commonly seen in people from Asia.
  19. Likewise, all humans today are descendants of one woman. Scientists can’t trace female ancestry by looking at the Y-chromosome, so what do they look at instead? Mitochondria.
  20. How long ago did that woman (‘Eve’) live? At least 150,000 years ago. ‘Adam’  and ‘Eve’ never met. They were separated by 90,000 years.
  21. There wasn’t just a single diaspora out of Africa, but a number of them. A particular genetic marker on the Y-chromosome, known as M130, originated in a man living somewhere north of the Red Sea in the early days of this migration, and this marker is now widely distributed across southern and eastern Asia, as well as in Australia. The peopling of Eurasia, and eventually the Americas, was accomplished by a separate group, whose ancestor was an African man with a Y-chromosome marker known as M89.When they reached the Middle East they gave rise to a further mutation (M9) and then to three further separate mutations. The bearers of these markers went on to settle central [1] Asia, [2] Europe and [3] India.
  22. Like homo sapiens, homo erectus was a hunting-and-gathering ape and could hunt prey as large as elephants. So why did homo sapiens survive (leading to us), while homo erectus (another bipedal ape) disappeared? Actually, there were several regional types of homo erectus, because the species evolved over its 1.8 million year existence. The ones that inhabited Africa gave rise to us. The ones that inhabited Europe and Asia died out. No one is sure why homo sapiens won out, but their brains were around 25 percent smaller than ours, and probably lacked advantages that homo sapiens had: Their stone tools weren’t as advanced as that of homo sapiens. It is also thought that they weren’t making much use of fire (if any). This is disputed among scientists. It probably couldn’t speak, but maybe communicated via sign language (which would leave no fossil record, unlike skulls). They also left no art. There’s no evidence of rituals for the dead. Also, even though they were probably responsible for the extinction of some species -perhaps sabre-tooth cats, for instance – the arrival of homo sapiens was always more destructive to species than the long habitation of homo erectus, which suggests homo sapiens were simply better hunters.
  23. Of Europe and Australia, which continent was colonised first? Perhaps surprisingly, it was Australia: a good 15 000 years earlier.
  24. Australia was colonised between 45 and 50 thousand years ago.
  25. When the first humans first reached Australia, there were many, many more large creatures living here. (Giant emu-like birds, marsupial equivalents of rhinoceros, more birds, more reptiles, giant sloths etc.) They were wiped out pretty much right away. When lots of creatures disappear within a few hundred years, this is what scientists call a blitzkrieg extinction.
  26. How did this mass extinction affect Australia’s ecosystem? The impact was enormous, because Australia has always been a fragile system of variable rainfall and infertile soils. Before humans made them extinct, the marsupial giants used to eat vegetation which would otherwise burn, so they managed to suppress fire. Their poo fertilised the soil, which increased the carbon content of soils. This promoted plant growth. Without these species, grasses and bushes grew rank and fires raged. This bares soils and causes erosion. This destroys fire-sensitive plants, which tend to be the more nutritious. Prior to the arrival of humans, northern Australia was covered by a kind of rainforest that may have shed its leaves in the dry winter. These would have enhanced rainfall by transpiring moisture. After they burned, this rain dried up, so Australia lost its great lakes in the middle of the continent. 
  27. Who were the Neanderthals and were did they live? Scientists don’t know if they were a subspecies of modern humans or a separate human species. They settled a swathe of Eurasia north of the Himalayas all the way into Europe (and possibly displaced some populations of Homo erectus). They were physically strong, and their brain size was comparable to that of homo sapiens.
  28. Would a Neanderthal be able to interbreed with a modern human? They could, and genetic evidence suggests they indeed did interbreed with homo sapiens (who anatomically were the same as modern humans). Our genes are 99.5 percent the same as theirs. 1–4% of the genome of people from Eurasia looks like it was contributed by Neanderthals. Evidence is inconclusive.
  29. Apart from us, which species of bipedal apes was the last to face extinction? Homo floresiensis, also known as hobbits, because adults were about the size of a three year old modern human. They inhabited the island of Flores and became extinct around 12 000 years ago. Our own ancestors were by then well established in other parts of the world, but for some reason ancient humans never invaded their island for a long time. We don’t know how the hobbits became extinct.
  30. Were they more intelligent than our own ancestors? Their brains were much smaller than ours, but the frontal lobes – the seat of planning and rational thought – were uniquely specialised and enlarged. They may have been rational and intelligent but in an entirely different way from us. What we do know is that they left Africa around 2 million years ago – earlier than Homo erectus – and they somehow managed to cross the sea from Java to Bali to Lombok, then to Sumbawa and Flores. No one else managed to do that.
  31. Why were they so much smaller than other bipedal apes? Mammals on islands tend to shrink in size, perhaps adapting in response to limited food supply.
  32. Overall, did early humans already influence climate change? Well, there’s still a lot of debate about whether modern civilisation affects climate change, but let’s assume you have accepted anthropogenic climate change. It is indeed quite possible that our human ancestors (and cousins) collectively influenced the global climate. The first humans to Australia, of course, affected Australia’s local climate with mass hunting. But Australia is not a very large continent, so it probably hasn’t contributed to changing the global climate. If we take the effect of each prehuman species and add them together, it’s quite likely that anthropogenic climate change started a long, long time ago, and that we are only just becoming worried about it now, at the tipping point.
PS Flannery’s is the best explanation I’ve had yet of mitochondria: The cells of our bodies…are composed of two or more entirely separate and unrelated types of creatures which must once have been relatively independent parts of an ecosystem on a young Earth. The bacterial partner is known as mitochondria, and it’s what gives cells energy. These partners must have started by forming a loose association, but after more than a billion years of evolution they have become the indivisible parts of an organism, or rather every organism on the planet. Every multicellular being is descended from such a union.

And what does the future hold? Future timeline; How many scientists don’t believe climate change is human-induced? Climate Change: A consensus.

Flashes of Genius vs Plodding Along

Which of these two men do you identify with more?

Despite the fact that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently hit upon the theory of evolution by natural selection, two more different men there never were. Darwin was a patient, methodical toiler, a scientist in the finest reductionist tradition. Wallace, in contrast, was a great synthesiser of all he saw and sensed, whose ideas came as flashes of genius. His description of the evolutionary process was dashed off in a few hours while he was in the grip of a malarial fever on the island of Ternate, in what is now Indonesia, yet it is the intellectual equal to Darwin’s painstaking effort.

- from Here On Earth by Tim Flannery

As a student I was definitely a follower from the ‘leave it til the last minute’ school of learning, and to be honest, I doubt I would have done better had I plodded along without the aid of last-night-fever (read: adrenalin and cheap coffee).

But when I entered the real world of work, I realised I couldn’t keep living like that. I couldn’t leave reports until the final hour, because when something went wrong – and sometimes something did – excuses were easy to find but ultimately worthless. And the human body is not built to survive on adrenalin as a normal, year long way of being.

I wonder if this transition from study-place into the workforce marks the typical progression from ‘adolescence’ into ‘grown-up’.

I suspect there are some types of jobs which still reward the ‘flashes of genius’ over the plodding along – the former instinctively carries more prestige. Take Don Draper and Peggy (from Mad Men) – the classic ‘genius’ vs the classic ‘plodder’.

Don Draper (to Peggy Olson): I don’t care if you work ten seconds if you bring me something I like.

Despite the difference between their rank and fortune, I’d say Peggy is as valuable to the organisation as Don by the time she matches him in years’ experience.

Peggy Olson: I thought we were doing this at 9. It’s 11:15.
Don Draper: I’m late, but you’re not. Good work so far.

Don Draper: “Fear stimulates my imagination.”

In the workplace, quietly getting on with things is sometimes under-rated. Instead, those who attract the most attention are those who come up with their ‘flashes of genius’ under pressure – in meetings with clients, when speaking to bosses, and after weeks of looking as if they’ve done nothing at all.

Don Draper: No. Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes’… is toasted.
Roger Sterling: Well, gentlemen, I don’t think I have to tell you what you just witnessed here.

In general, our world favours those who have their flashes of genius in public.

Related Link: Start projects early, so your subconscious can work on it during down time.

Reading Meme

Do you snack while reading?

No. I’m no multi-tasker.

What is your favourite drink while reading?

If it’s a good book I could be drinking urine and coke, and I probably wouldn’t notice.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

I tend to write on postit notes – mainly because of this blog. These scraps of paper give me an endless number of completely unimportant things to blog about.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog ear? Laying the book open flat?

All of the above. I’ll only dog-ear a book if it’s already looking really old and decrepit. I can’t bring myself to fold down the pages of new books. Sometimes I amaze myself with the things that can function as a bookmark. Lolly wrappers, parking tickets, gum leaves, bills, a Cuisenaire rod, a piece of lego.

Fiction, non-fiction or both?

Both.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere?

I stop anywhere. Reading ebooks promotes this, as does reading books with no chapters, or very long chapters, or very short ones. Very few books have the perfect length chapter for my attention span, so divisions feel arbitrary.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

I don’t throw stuff for fear of damaging something else which is valuable, but if I’d purchased the book that irritated me I might well put it in the recycling bin. I wouldn’t want to keep an unpleasant book as a reminder of irritation, staring out at me from the shelf.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

Yes, if I’m reading an ebook, because it’s so easy to do. But most unfamiliar words don’t stick out as ‘I must look it up right away’ – instead, I guess I just guess their meanings from context. I’ll only look it up if it’s been bothering me… That’s right. Must look up the meaning of ‘immanent’. (It was used a lot in the last book I read.)

What are you currently reading?

I tend to have both a fiction and an non-fiction on the go at once:

1. Tim Flannery’s Here On Earth (which is not as religious as it sounds). Tim Flannery is an environmental scientist, and Australian of the Year 2006.

2. I’m listening to The Slap by Christos Ttsiolkas as an audiobook as I work – which I can only do if I’m working on something really mindless, or walking the dog. I feel like this is a book every single other reading Australian has already talked about to death. I already ‘knew’ this book before I started listening to it myself. But I don’t know how it ends, so I will definitely keep listening.

What is the last book you bought?

What Makes Us Tick by Hugh Mackay, for someone else as a gift. I haven’t read it myself, but book club reviews were very positive. I like to support the publishing industry by buying books as gifts.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?

In the beanbag. Though today I couldn’t help but notice it smelt vaguely of kiddie pee. Note to self: Must get a bean bag for MY OWN use only! I tend to use reading as a reward system: Clean the toilet, read a chapter; stack some wood, read a chapter… That said, I don’t tend to stick to chapters… Maybe that’s why the wood pile isn’t shrinking.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?

Stand-alones. I don’t like the contrivance required when an author wants to tie up one story yet leave the reader wanting more. I feel manipulated as a consumer. This is why I don’t feel compelled to read the next in Larsson’s Millennium series even though I enjoyed the first one.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, to women who tell me they’re on a diet, and The God Delusion, to the Mormons who bother me several times per year. I tell them I’ll read their guff if they read mine. (They haven’t taken me up on the offer as yet.)

How do you organise your books (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)?

Every now and then I get into ‘tidy’ mode and I’ll sort the books according to type (text books, literary, SF etc) but they’re shelved two or three deep in a cupboard, and sod’s law dictates that when I’m looking for a book it’ll be one right at the back, on the last shelf I check. So I’ve given up trying to maintain order. There’s always the local library if I need to feel a sense of organisation wash over me.

 

Whose advice to listen to?

from Mark Twain

Related Link: Some advice on advice.

Noisy Noise Noise… NOISE!

by holly northrop

Last week I visited a brand spanking new library which opened locally. It’s impressive, all right. There are literary quotes woven into the carpet, big red armchairs which allow patrons to look from an enormous window to the street outside, numerous standup computer terminals, and flash decor which feels like something between an airport departure lounge and a Borders bookstore.

There is also a sizeable children’s play area, smack bang in the middle of the library, with furniture designed for romping and a data projector on the ceiling depicting giant, foot-sized ants onto a paddling-pool sized rectangle of carpet below. No amount of squinting at the ceiling allowed me to work out how this works, but if you stand on the ants, they get ‘squished’ and disappear; a satisfying ‘bug-squish’ sound reverberates throughout the library space.

‘Satisfying’ if you’re a kid, that is.

If you’re at this library to study — and you might well be, because it’s attached to a community learning institution — you can always take refuge in one of the glassed-in study rooms which have also been provided.

I was glad to see those. Because despite being the owner of a three-year-old, and also of an open plan house with wooden floors, my tolerance for noise isn’t that high. I need regular periods of peace and quiet.

Sometimes I say this and feel all alone in my age group.

It’s usually people several decades older than me writing  in to local newspapers bemoaning the cacophony of pop music piped through cheap speakers in shopping centres ‘these days’.

It’s usually the retired and the out-of-touch who speak disapprovingly of ‘young mothers’ who won’t make any effort to keep their children orderly in restaurants and movie theatres.

But these old grumps have a point.

THE urban WORLD IS BUILT FOR THOSE WHO don’t mind NOISE.

There is ever-increasing acceptance of individual difference: sexualities/eating preferences/body shapes, but are we equally schooled up on our own individual learning types, and as part of that, of our individual reactions to noise?

I’ve noticed three broad types of people in this world:

1. Feels invigorated when surrounded by external stimuli.

Others might call it noise, but competing sounds are instead processed as excitement. This sort of person is often drawn to nightclubs, big cities, music concerts, crowded pubs. Much prefers watching sports events as one of a crowd. Loves mardi gras. But this sort of person can feel lonely without some sort of external stimulus, and is inclined to switch on the television when returning home to an empty house, even if they’re not actually watching it. Can feel uncomfortable with lulls in a conversation, and conversational style reflects that: Will repeat oneself, interrupt others or add fillers before allowing gaps in dialogue with people they don’t know well. Type ones can think and talk at the same time. Indeed, thinking is talking.

2. Ambivalent about noise.

Type two is able to retreat into their own mind regardless of external stimuli. Would probably choose to live in the suburbs, where intermittent trips to the city provide occasional excitement. Can study in a cafe, or while listening to a radio, though may have personal preferences requiring white noise or music without lyrics for certain types of work.

3. Needs silence.

This sort of person — often called an introvert — feels most invigorated after a period of solitude. The minimum amount of time preferred varies from person to person — it might be 20 minutes a day, or it might stretch to hours. This sort of person can become frustrated when living with others who need noise, because radios and televisions running in the background interrupt private thoughts and feel like an intrusion. These people most likely live in urban areas (because most people these days are urban dwellers) but their idea of a holiday is more likely to be somewhere less bustling, not more bustling, than their regular daily life. Their best thinking is done when external stimuli is at a minimum. Some people of this type can feel harried during fast paced conversations, and will utilise silences in a conversation as thinking time.

I’m type number three.

I think this is the least understood type, and also the type less and less catered for, in a world where we are all expected to just put up with sounds inflicted upon us by others.

A FEW DISTURBING TRENDS

1. Forced Exposure to Music

It’s true that you can’t go into certain shops — especially clothing stores — without music blaring loudly from the speakers.  No matter — I can avoid clothing stores bar a few times per year, when it’s in and out for me. (I don’t enjoy clothes shopping. I can also tell you, after having worked in a women’s clothing store, that most women don’t enjoy clothes shopping. Many women enjoy having shopped. There’s a difference.)

Unless you’re also type three, however, you may not have noticed the constant noise over loud speakers in a supermarket. I can’t understand why workers in large shops still think it’s necessary to talk to each other over the loud speaker. Pagers were invented ages ago. Why not make use of those instead, clipping them onto the belt of your work pants at the start of each shift, along with your name badge? Customer service training might require etiquette about not checking a pager until after dealing with a customer, but surely an entire supermarket full of shoppers doesn’t really need to know that a price on Durex ribbed is required at checkout number nine, or that someone spilt a yoghurt in aisle five.

Also, as a type three individual, I would add that low-volume music piped through cheap speakers is even more irritating than music played loudly on high quality speakers. Basically, unless I’m listening to my own music, selected and paid for by myself, I don’t want to hear anybody else’s music. I don’t even want to hear my own favourite music when it’s forced upon me as I’m trying to work out how much change I’m owed from a fifty. Besides, nothing but nothing sounds good coming out of supermarket speakers, especially when it’s punctuated by incomprehensible mumblings from middle management.

Those who need the background stimulus of music while shopping for soap and spuds have always got the option of ear buds. Those of us who prefer quiet don’t have any choice in the matter. There’s a problem with that. (Of course, I can’t write any of this without sounding like Shocked and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.)

2. Education Policies Which Promote Technological Literacy and Student Centred Learning… At the Expense of Peace and Quiet

Is it just me, or have schools become noisier?

With caveats, computers in schools are a great thing. Within the next decade I predict all students in this country will be making use of laptops during lessons and reading books from tablets and e-readers. Many already do.

What concerns me about some of the software being produced for these devices is that some developers assume bells and whistles (mindless sound effects, in other words) will grab students’ attention and lead to greater engagement with the learning material.

This is a dangerous assumption and I’d like to see more research into it. The vocab training software I used several years ago in the foreign language classroom required each student make use of personal earphones. The computer lab was next to the library, and one day, while taking an English class in the library, I overheard a relief teacher in there, using the same software with someone else’s class, unaware that the headphones were hidden inside the cupboard. The noise coming out of that room was horrendous, yet none of the students thought to tell the teacher where to find the headphones. I told her myself, mainly because I — alone? — couldn’t put up with the noise coming into the library for our ‘silent, sustained reading’ session. (SSR is a well-known concept in New Zealand. I suspect it’s one of the few intervals in a school day where type three students get a 20 minute period in which to enjoy the thoughts going on inside their own heads.)

I did wonder what proportion of the students in that noisy class of 25 would have fit into type three, like me, and therefore found it impossible to concentrate on the task at hand. None of them had said anything. This software was designed to promote vocab memorisation, and after years of studying foreign language myself, I know that I can’t do this when surrounded by noise. I acknowledge that not everyone is like me — many of my university classmates said they could only study with some sort of background noise, and preferred the cafe over the library. That’s okay. The world caters for that. What about the rest of us? What are the proportions of type threes in a typical classroom?

It concerns me that schools aren’t offering enough quiet time in the school day. With emphasis on group work, and co-operation and peer-teaching, it can sound terribly old-fashioned to insist that a class work in silence at all — indeed, it’s very draining to enforce, because many students aren’t used to it now, so a teacher must have complete control of classroom management — but I think there are more students distracted by background noise than we realise.

They may not know it themselves. Maybe no one ever told them it’s okay to need silence. Instead, I see some ‘forward thinking’ principals keen to see students making full use of technology in the classroom, and this often includes listening to music as they work. It’s a mark of comradeship, to share a single pair of ear buds with the classmate sitting next to you. It wouldn’t be easy for a kid to opt out of such an invitation.

But not all students work well while listening to music — and despite some evidence that certain types of classical music promote certain types of thinking — actually, you know, not many students are listening to that. I fear it’s become almost nerdy (and not in a good way) for a student to require silence during class. Besides, if students aren’t getting silence at school, are they getting it at home?*

*There’s increasing evidence that high school students aren’t getting enough sleep, and I suspect it’s because they’re reclaiming ‘me-time’ in their own rooms late at night, because that’s the only time they get to be inside their own heads over the course of a typical school day. Is it possible that we’re overstimulating our teenagers?

I do wonder how many doctors, lawyers and physicists spent the bulk of their study hours listening to music. The law library at my university was one of the few places you could go if you wanted to be sure of silence — the furrow-browed law students poring over their books ensured it by scaring noisy intruders away with the stink eye. I’m inclined to think that, even for thinkers who do okay on music, that there are certain complex ideas which can really only be processed after deep and prolonged time to oneself.

Silent time. Silent time and more sleep.

Might educational outcomes really be improved by focusing on something as simple as that?

Related Link: City Life Could Change Your Brain For The Worse.

Finally, Punctuation for Irony.

Soon, people began using hashtags to add humor, context and interior monologues to their messages — and everyday conversation. As Susan Orlean wrote in a New Yorker blog post titled “Hash,” the symbol can be “a more sophisticated, verbal version of the dread winking emoticon that tweens use to signify that they’re joking.”… So, for instance, a messages that reads “3 hour delay on Amtrak #StimulusDollarsAtWork,” likely implies that the user does not, in fact, think that their stimulus dollars are hard at work.

Twitter’s Secret Handshake

Punctuation Marks You Never Knew Existed from Buzz Feed

The 5 Best Punctuation Marks In Literature from Vulture

Picture Books That Teach Non-fiction Facts

Little Penguin by Patrick Benson

This book introduces some of the wildlife living in Antarctica. There is a sort-of story to go along with it: little penguin goes for a swim and happens upon a whale. (As so often happens with whales, the penguin ends up looking it in the eye.) Pip the penguin waddles back home, past the Adelie penguins and so on. Before she thought the Emperior penguins were big, but she’s seen much bigger, so isn’t impressed this time.

Frank In Time by Rod Clement

Frank goes to the museum and gets a very broad view of history (mummies, Christopher Colombus etc). After each thing he learns at the museum, he relates it back to modern life. (Colombus discovered the world – if only he were around today to find Mum’s keys kind of thing.) At the end of the story he asks his father how he can have his own place in history. The father suggests he be the first kid in history to do all his homework and keep his room tidy, so Frank decides to make plans for an automatic room tidier. In this way, a history lesson is embedded in a story. For my taste this one is too heavy on narrative which directly addresses the reader.


EASY STREET BY RITA GRAY

This story follows a group of roadies as they lay down new ashphalt. There’s a page of non-fiction explanation about road surfaces at the back, just so you know. Lots of the kids in my life are absolutely fascinated by roadworks, including my three-year-old daughter, so I’m sure this book appeals to lots of toddlers, even if I have no interest in roadworks myself.

What I really need is a picture book which labels all the different construction vehicles. My daughter is forever pointing to a yellow machine thingy scraping up rock, or something, and asking me what it is. For now, everything’s a ‘truck’. There are plenty of books which fill this function, but I’ve yet to find a book which labels the machines you typically find at an Australian construction site, which seem to be slightly different from those used in America.

THE BIG CONCRETE LORRY BY SHIRLEY HUGHES

If your family is about to do some hard landscaping, this would be a good book to read to your young children, because it goes through the process of concreting and what-not. Everyone pitches in, including the mother, who does some of the physical labour – not just making the tea and scones – which is why I’d recommend it.

ONE WORLD BY DAVID HIGGINS

There is an abundance of children’s literature which familiarise readers with the same old animals over and over: dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, you know the ones. So it’s nice to expose children to other kinds of animals once in a while. I think I was quite old before I understood the true magnitude of biodiversity in this world, and this book would go some way towards teaching that concept, with its large, beautifully detailed illustrations of Azure kingfishers, brolgas, frill-necked lizard, platypus and so on. A poetic, philosophical story unites the pictures, which otherwise form an series of encyclopaedic entries. This would appeal to children who have a keen interest in wildlife, but as I said, all children should be exposed to more than just the stock animal characters.

ONE SMART FISH BY CHRIS WORMELL

First: my husband loved this book when he read it to our three year old, and encouraged me to read it myself.

But I wasn’t so impressed.

For me, this book sits uncomfortably between fiction and non-fiction. It’s about the first fish who ever started walking on land. This led first to the reptiles, then to all the rest of life on land.

Well, that bit’s pretty much okay. But this fish is the smartest fish in the entire sea. (Not entirely accurate.) This fish sings and dances. (Definitely not accurate.) And when it comes out of the sea and onto the beach, he’s wearing flipper-shaped gumboots. This is comical, but not true at all!

The problem I have with simplified tales of evolution is that a too great a proportion of this world refuses to believe in it at all, and this has consequences for the future health of our planet. I’m not convinced stories like this help the cause.

I say this in acknowledgement of the fact that it’s a big ask for an author to write a story in which non-fiction facts are imparted. There are other stories which manage this – stories about polar bears who can talk, but who also manage to teach the child a little about the polar beat’s daily life, for instance. But the issue of evolution treated as hypothesis rather than as an established and scientifically sound theory is perhaps a little too close to my heart. I’d avoid this fictional account of evolution and instead stick to the facts.

Because evolution simply works differently than how it’s portrayed in this book. For an interesting article on ‘domestication selection’ (which happens to be about fish), see this article from io9.

THIS IS THE MOUNTAIN BY MIRIAM MOSS

This is like a dreamy, children’s guide to the African Rift Valley, in which the reader is introduced to the life (mainly wild) you’ll find around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. The text is followed by several pages of information, to help parents and teachers explain more about this part of the world.

Related Links:

Six Non-Fiction Books Your Kids Will Want To Read from Imagination Soup

The Simply Science Blog reviews a lot of scientific picture books.

An Animal Gets Into Trouble (and out again)

Dogs are popular choices for protagonists in this sort of story, I suppose because dogs are inclined to get themselves into trouble. (Our own border collie is no exception.)

Alexander’s Outing by Pamela Allen

A mother duck takes her ducklings through a walk through Sydney (past various famous landmarks). One little duckling won’t behave himself and falls down a hole. A variety of methods are used to try and get him out:

  • Poking down an umbrella
  • Offering a sandwich
  • Letting down a policeman’s whistle on a string

Finally the policeman fills the hole up with water so Alexander can float to the top. The mother duck is very pleased, and the ducks and the people skip around the Archibald fountain. They prance off home in time for tea.

The Poky Little Puppy

The original is great. It has been such a popular story Little Golden Books have put out more books featuring the Poky Little Puppy, but they somehow fail to capture the charm of the original. I find them too wordy.

Hairy McLairy From Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

Wonderful rhyme, wonderful illustrator. All of Lynley Dodd’s books are equally arresting. (Must be the name.)

Wolf’s Sunday Dinner by Tania Cox

This is a cute book. A wolf decides to cook a duck for his Sunday dinner but only finds a scrawny one. He decides to fatten it up, but the duckling is a fussy eater. He won’t eat anything the wolf brings for him. Eventually the duckling admits he likes frogs, so the wolf goes to much trouble catching a bag full of frogs. When he takes the frogs back, it turns out the duck only likes playing with frogs, not eating them. The wolf is very hungry so decides to eat the duck as is. But when he opens his enormous mouth, it turns into a yawn and he falls asleep. The duck wanders off and finds his mother, who tells him it’s time for dinner. That’s good, because the scrawny duck is very hungry.

Kashtanka by Anton Chekhov

A dog (Kashtanka) gets lost in the streets, and is eventually taken home by a man who gives him plenty of food to eat. Unlike many stories of this kind, Kashtanka’s new plight has its pluses and minuses – he doesn’t like the new place because it doesn’t have the same smells, but the man doesn’t get angry and stamp around like his former owner. It turns out the new man is a clown/circus performer, who works with a few other animals including a gooe. One night the goose dies, and it’s now Kashtanka’s turn to take over the performance. He has been in training (and renamed ‘Auntie’, for some reason). But in the crowd are Kashtanka’s former owners – a boy and father – poor cabinet makers who stand up and shout that the dog belongs to them. Kashtanka goes home with the cabinetmaker and after they’d been walking along for a long time it felt as though his world had not been interrupted for a second, and his life with the circus performer had all been a hazy dream.

THE VERY SMALL BY JOYCE DUNBAR

In this story a bear takes the child’s role, and finds a creature who reminds me of something out of Cuddlepot and Snugglepie. The bear entertains The Small Thing for a day before ‘sneezing’ it back to the woods. The creature’s own mummy and daddy happened to be waiting there for it. Since both the bear and the small thing are tucked up in bed after an exciting day, this is also a Going To Bed Book. It’s also a Child’s Imagination Takes Over book – a mixture of many. Perhaps for this reason I didn’t find it particularly satisfying as an adult reader.

THREE BY THE SEA BY MINI GREY

What a great name for a picture book author/illustrator. It’s so good it must be a pen name. (Last time I wrote that in a blog post, the author popped by to tell me it wasn’t.)

Thing is, the animals don’t really get into trouble. It just seems as if they will, because of all the other stories with wolves in them. A cat, dog and mouse live beside the sea, quite happily. A wolf turns up, demands their bed. (There’s only one.)

Eventually the wolf departs and although he upset the family balance with his criticism of the way they run their household, he departed without eating them all up. In fact, the animals took on some of the wolf’s suggestions and were able to share the household tasks more equitably after he’d gone.

I really like large size picture books with super-detailed illustrations, and this is one of those. (Think Grahame Base, Shaun Tan, but a bit looser.)

ZOE’S WEB BY THOMAS WEST

A spider is blown away from her family and doesn’t know how to build a web to catch flies. She looks around her world and sees all sorts of things which look a bit like webs (hammocks, powerlines etc.) but none of them catch flies. Just as she’s about to starve to death, she finds her family of spiders and is reunited. She learns how to build her own web by looking at what they have done, and all is well in spider world.

I like that this book encourages children to make connections  and use their imagination to see the everyday world in a new way. I had never before thought that a hammock can look like a spider’s web, but I’m sure I will now.

MR JACK: A LITTLE DOG IN A BIG HURRY BY CHRISTINE MORTON-SHAW

The milieu of this book feels like the 1950s, which was a fascinating decade for literature (Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are two of my favourite things ever) but unfortunately this decade left a lot to be desired re equal rights for women. Of course, when you read stories set in this decade, you’re going to have important men at work whose secretaries run around after them attending to their every need, and that’s what happens in this book.

An important male dog forgets his glasses at work, and his faithful high-heeled mouse secretary chases him all over town in order to give them back.

Thus, a child learns that this is how the world works. Part of me feels I’m being precious about gender represenation in children’s books, but once you start noticing such things you can’t suddenly choose to be blind to it. Insofar as children’s books both reflect the world as it is and influence children’s view of it, this story may well be a problem if left completely unchallenged.

A VERY PROPER FOX BY JAN FEARNLEY

I enjoyed this book very much. It’s about a fox who doesn’t know he’s supposed to eat chickens, so an evil rabbit tries to persuade him that he needs to go hunting for them so they can both enjoy a chicken dinner. This almost works, except the fox is OCD tidy, and when he gets to the chicken’s house he feels a compulsion to clean. He ends up befriending the chicken and they live together happily ever after.

The language is mock melodramatic, and the pictures comical. This would satisfy both adults and children.

ONE WINTER’S NIGHT BY CLAIRE FREEDMAN

This book reminds me of an Aesop’s fable, except I don’t think Aesop’s fables featured badgers. So I’d say it’s just sort of inspired by one.

It’s about animals looking after each other on a particularly cold and dreary snowy night. Fox, Rabbit and Mouse end up saving Badger, who looks like he’s in the initial throes of hypothermia. They take him in, warm him up and Badger goes off on his own way in the morning. He’s left nothing but a note. It’s quite cute they way they all snuggle up together in the warren, and it makes me almost wish it were snowing outside. (I’ll take it all back if it actually does.)

A BIT LOST BY CHRIS HAUGHTON

I love the limited colour palette of this picture book, which is made up of purples and olives and dark blues. The story itself follows a familiar plot – a baby owl falls out of the nest and hunts for its mother until the mother is found. The language in this one is very cute, however, and I really do feel for the poor little owl. Even the ending is a familiar one – the circular story format is utilised, so that the final image we see is the baby owl about to fall out of the nest again. I still really liked this treatment of such a familiar story – the baby owl talks just as a three year old talks – which reinforces for me language really is important in picture books – even more important than an original story. (For toddlers, there’s no such thing as ‘done before’.)

Kate de Goldi discusses this book in this podcast.

RHINO, WHAT RHINO? BY CARYL HART AND SARAH HORNE

A rhino escapes from the zoo, but creates such a mess in his wake that other animals get into trouble. All is well in the end, and the rhino never gets put back into the zoo, which is perhaps a political comment about zoos.

I love the illustrations in this book, which remind me of those in The Lorax.

BIG SQUEAK, LITTLE SQUEAK BY ROBERT KRAUS

The illustrations, by Kevin O’Malley are beautiful, with an invitingly warm palette. The story is about two mice who go to buy cheese. The cheese shop is owned by a cat. The cat, of course, wants to eat them. They end up saving all the other mice who are in the basement, where the cat has been saving them for a feast.

Obviously, for anyone who knows anything about the nature of cats, this wouldn’t happen in the wild. Cats tend to play with mice until they’re dead. Cats don’t have the ability to make long-term plans, saving food until a big feast.

But then, cats don’t own cheese shops either! When it comes to animal natures and children’s books, authors are free to rewrite the universe for the sake of the non-negotiable happy ending.

THIS IS THE BEAR AND THE PICNIC LUNCH BY SARAH HAYES

The language in this book is perfect for a toddler who is still coming to terms with their native tongue. My three year old loves this story, partly, I’m sure, because we also have a black nosed lunch-stealing dog living in this house, and several teddy bears who — apparently — feel actual emotions, acutely, even though mum is numb to jabs in the ribs and objects flying towards head.

PIP IN THE GRAND HOTEL BY JOHANNES HUCKE

This is a physically large book, with busy illustrations inviting the reader to absorb detail. For this reason I would prefer a tighter drawing style, rather than the sketchy style which does not lead my eye to settle on any particular thing. Perhaps this is the intention for a story which is fast paced.

Indeed, the wording itself makes me want to turn the pages faster and faster because sentences are stopped mid-stream with elliptical dots, requiring readers to turn the page before we know what’s about to happen on the following two page spread.

While this writing technique works, if used sparsely, I had wearied of it by the end of the book. It made me feel quite rushed. This suits the story — sure — in which a mouse runs around a hotel, chased by a gaggle of kids and harried staff, but there’s a difference between making your characters tired and your readers tired!

It goes without saying that the mouse doesn’t get squished or anything nasty like that. I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and of his genius, because unlike picture books (for slightly younger readers), Dahl manages to turn his main character into a mouse AND have a happy ending.

THE MOST OBEDIENT DOG IN THE WORLD BY ANITA JERAM

The dog in this story is quite adorable – when the boy tells him to sit he sits, and doesn’t move, even though a rain storm soaks him to the skin. Nothing really happens to the dog, and it’s not clear where the boy went to all that time, but because the dog did as he was told he was taken to the beach (presumably by way of an apology!)

TINY’S BIG ADVENTURE BY MARTIN WADDELL ILLUSTRATED BY JOHN LAWRENCE

This story is illustrated with lino cuts, or at least in lino cut style. That and the colour scheme make it reminiscent of children’s literature published in the 1970s, so I was surprised to see that this book was produced in 2004. The retro thing is very well done indeed. Even the font feels straight out of 1972.

This story would suit a child of delicate nature. But for my four-year-old, who watches Jurassic Park, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away without ill-effect, two mice temporarily losing sight of each other is a complete anti-climax.